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“[A] splendid example of history illuminating ecology, with well-chosen facts that enable us to picture a largely invisible catastrophe.”
Once upon a time, gray whales fed in the cold waters off Iceland and Greenland and migrated south-perhaps to the Bay of Biscay or even to the English Channel-to breed. Morphologically, they were the same whales (now known as Eschrichtius robustus) as the better-known California gray whales, which confine their migratory meanderings to the Pacific coast of North America, annually swimming south from the Bering Sea to Baja California and back again. No living person has seen an Atlantic gray whale, but we do have suggestive historical and conclusive paleontological evidence to confirm the existence of the creature that whale-hunters used to call "devil-fish."
The earliest mention to date of what may have been the Atlantic gray whale can be found in an Icelandic bestiary from about A.D. 1200 that describes some different kinds of whales, but not accurately enough for modern cetologists to identify them as to species. The Konnungs skuggsjá (King's Mirror), a thirteenth-century document written in Norwegian probably as a set of instructions for a king's son, lists twenty-one sea creatures, some of which can be referred to as living whales, dolphins, and pinnipeds, and some of which-mermaids and mermen, for example-are clearly mythological. Although it is not clearly identified, the gray whale is thought to be one of the whales mentioned.
A seventeenth-century Icelandic work by Jon Gudmundsson (quoted in Hermannson 1924) contains a list of various whales that might be found in nearby waters, and one of these is the Sandlaegja, which has been translated as "sand-lier." The description-translated from Icelandic-is as follows: "Sandlaegja.... Good eating. It has whiter baleen plates, which project from the upper jaw instead of teeth, as in all other baleen whales.... It is very tenacious of life and can come to land to lie as a seal to rest the whole day.... Sandlaegja, reaches 30 ells [an ell is about thirty inches], has baleen and is well edible." Although other whale species share some of these attributes, many of these characteristics, such as the "whiter baleen plates" and the sand-lying behavior that gave it its name, would appear to refer to the Atlantic gray whale, which does indeed have short, whitish baleen and a habit of entering very shallow water.
The historical literature I've mentioned so far is inconclusive, but we know from other sources that before the modern era gray whales swam in the Atlantic Ocean. Fossil remains of a species similar to-perhaps identical with-the Pacific gray whale have been found in western Europe (Sweden, England, and the Netherlands) and on the eastern coast of North America from New Jersey to South Carolina. The Atlantic gray whale fed in cold northern waters (perhaps off Iceland and Greenland) and then moved south to breed and calve. (There also used to be a sizable western Pacific population of gray whales, summering off Siberia and wintering in the breeding grounds off Korea and Japan, but during the past century this population was all but eliminated by Japanese and Korean whalers.) Extrapolating from comparable Pacific data, we can assume that during summer the Atlantic gray whales fed in deep, cold northern waters and then, with the coming of autumn, headed south, probably to Spain, France, or England on one side of the Atlantic or America's eastern seaboard on the other. In protected bays, the cows most likely would have delivered their calves and become impregnated prior to the northward journey in the spring.
More suggestive historical accounts also exist. For example, as James Mead and Edward Mitchell point out in their 1984 study of the Atlantic gray whale, there are the orders the directors of the Muscovy Company gave to Thomas Edge in 1611. These instructions include descriptions of whales Edge might look for, including one, the Otta sotta, described as being "the same colour as the Trumpa [sperm whale] having finnes in his mouth all white but not above a yard long, being thicker than the Trumpa but not so long. He yeeldes the best oyle but not above 30 hogs' heads." And in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London for 1725, Paul Dudley described the "scrag whale," with characteristics applicable to no other species but the gray whale: "The Scrag whale is near a-kin to the Fin-back, but instead of a Fin on his Back, the Ridge of the After part of his Back is scragged with a half Dozen Knobs or Knuckles; he is nearest the right Whale in Figure and for Quantity of Oil; his bone is white but won't split."
The most thorough account of the Atlantic gray whale in the historical record is Ole Lindquist's "The North Atlantic Gray Whale (Eschrichtius robusms): An Historical Outline Based on Icelandic, Danish-Icelandic, English and Swedish Sources Dating from ca 1000 A.D. to 1792," published in 2000. The author reads Icelandic, Danish, and Swedish and therefore found many more sources than those of us who relied upon earlier, mostly English-language, authors. One such source is a 1657 work by Thomas Bartholin, a University of Copenhagen professor, called "Record of the Fishes of Iceland," which contains this description:
The fifteenth type is the sandlaegja. It is twenty or nearly thirty ells long and lies quietly in the sand. It takes the greatest possible pleasure in sand and greedily seeks out the tiny little fish which are abundant there. It is equipped with horny plates, and although it is eaten by humans, it does not have a pleasant taste, nor is it particularly fat. It is difficult to kill and dies slowly as seals do. It is happy to rest on land. If one comes upon it in the sand, one cannot get near it because it throws up the surrounding sand and moves vigorously in an extraordinary way. But once the force of the waves had driven it into the shallows and it has been run through in several places by spears, it lies dead.
An Icelander named Theodor Thorlacius (1637-1697), bishop of Skáholt, wrote of the Sandlaegja in 1666: "It takes its name from the sand in which it loves to lie, because it is generally seen on the shore. All these have [baleen] but lack teeth. Its flesh is very beneficial to health and perfectly suitable for eating." In 1706, another Icelander, Thormod Torfaeus, wrote Groenlandica anttiqua, in which he described the Sandlaegja thus: "They have a large tongue and taste good, something they have in common with all those endowed with gills. Their fat is more easily melted than those of the lean ones." These descriptions, Lindquist remarks, "reflect the Icelanders' knowledge of gray whales as it was around 1650."
Especially in the lagoons of Baja California, Pacific gray whales inhabit fairly shallow waters, and they have been known to strand themselves on beaches or sandbars, but no living whale habitually comes ashore. To do so would mean almost certain death, for whales are ill equipped to move on land, and a whale on the beach in the sun is a whale that cooks in its own blubber insulation. It is therefore curious to read the Icelanders' descriptions of the habits of the Sandlaegja, almost every one of which alludes to the whale's habit of lying in the sun like a seal. Lindquist mentions Swedish clergyman Olaus Magnus (1490-1557), who wrote of a whale "clearly distinguishable from the walrus, which comes on to the beach in sunshine where it sleeps soundly like the seal and which people frequently manage to capture by tying it with ropes." Lindquist wrote that "the only cetacean that has a habit like that is the gray whale," but even if the Atlantic version regularly came ashore, as the Icelanders said it did, its Pacific counterpart does not engage in such self-destructive behavior.
In Sea of Slaughter, an impassioned condemnation (written in 1984) of humankind's ecological excesses in the North Atlantic Ocean, Farley Mowat gives us a most dramatic version of the disappearance of the gray whale, which he calls Otta sotta. Something, or some groups of hunters, eliminated the Atlantic gray whale, but Mowat's hard evidence is thin and hard to track down. In his view, at least, the Otta sotta was "the favorite prey of the Basque whalers until they exterminated it, relegated it to historical oblivion." The more cautious Ole Lindquist concludes that
the North Atlantic gray whale was hunted primarily by coastal inhabitants (a) around the North Sea and the English Channel, from prehistoric times at least into the high Middle Ages; (b) in Iceland, from about 900 A.D. until about 1730; and (c) in New England by European settlers from the mid 17th century until about the same time, possibly also by Indians there; secondly that it was caught by Basques in the latter half of the 16th century and in the early 17th century.
We have no way of knowing whether the Basques and the Icelanders by themselves hunted the Atlantic gray whale to extinction. Its numbers might have been low before the first Basque chaloup was launched. We do know that these very whalers wreaked havoc on the right whale populations of the Bay of Biscay and then headed across the North Atlantic, where they did the same thing. Yet for all this killing, the right whale is not extinct. During the past two centuries, it appeared for all the world as if the idea were to kill all the whales, but despite our massive, concentrated efforts, we failed to eliminate a single great whale species. If industrial whaling could not eliminate any species of whale, how could seventeenth-century open-boat whalers armed with hand-thrown harpoons have accomplished what the diesel-powered catcher boats armed with exploding harpoons could not? It would have been an extraordinary accomplishment for the early hunters to kill all the Atlantic gray whales, but even if they didn't, they could have so stressed the population that it became vulnerable to other deadly forces, such as disease or climate change. To imperil (or even eliminate) a species, we don't have to administer the final coup de grace ourselves.
There is no more poignant example of the agonizing inadequacy of humankind's approach to marine mammals than the disappearance of Steller's sea cow. When Commander Vitus Bering's ship St. Peter was wrecked on a remote western Aleutian island in 1741, the surviving crew members found there, in addition to bewhiskered sea otters, immense "sea cows," which were subsequently named for Georg Wilhelm Steller, the naturalist on the voyage. Bering died on the island, but Steller survived and reported the existence of fur seals, sea otters, and the sea lions that now bear his name. Returning sealers killed the huge, slow-moving, oil-rich "manatees" with such fervor that there were none left by 1768.
We have entered an era in which the lesson of the sea cows has been ignored, usually in the name of short-term profits. Whalers, fishermen, and sealers have systematically destroyed the fisheries that sustained them and have then been surprised that they could not pass on their legacy to those who followed. Gone are the days when cod fishermen on the Grand Banks, off the southeastern coast of Newfoundland-once the world's richest neighborhood for Gadus morhua-could lower a basket on a rope and bring it up filled with wriggling cod. Only recently have biologists come to understand the intricacies of fish breeding, recruitment, and migration, and for many species the revelations have come too late.
So many of the inhabitants of the oceans have been depleted-fishes, sharks, whales, dolphins-but so have many creatures that spend only a part of their lives in the water yet depend on the oceans for their very existence. The semiaquatic seals and sea lions feed and travel in the water but come out to breed and give birth, as does the sea otter. Perched as he is at the pinnacle of the food pyramid, Homo sapiens has made a career of eliminating those on the lower tiers. Even the most powerful of the ocean's predators-the sharks, tunas, billfishes, whales, and dolphins-have fallen before the fishers' and hunters' relentless determination to wrest a living from the sea's bounty. Some of these creatures were hunted for food, some for fur, some for oil. Some species of aquatic birds died by the thousands because they were trapped in nets meant for fishes, and some, like the flightless great auk, were hunted for food and clubbed out of existence. Our ability to affect the life and death of sea creatures-the subject of this book-acutely underscores our responsibility to the creatures that share our planet. In that sense-and only in that sense-is it our planet.
We are stranded on shore, watching as the bountiful sea life disappears before our uncomprehending eyes. For many species, what we do-or don't do-in the coming years will make the difference between existence and extinction. In some cases, it is too late to do anything; the sea cows, great auks, Labrador ducks, and Caribbean monk seals are gone, probably to be followed into the black hole of extinction by barndoor skates, thorn-back rays, Patagonian toothfish, Chinese river dolphins, Ganges River dolphins, and the little Gulf of California porpoises known as vaquitas. Weep for them-and listen to the words of William Beebe: "The beauty and genius of a work of art may be reconceived, though its first material expression be destroyed; a vanished harmony may yet again inspire the composer; but when the last individual of a race of living things breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again."
Abundant signs of the biosphere's limited resilience exist all around. The oceanic fish catch now yields $7.5 billion to the U.S. economy and $82 billion worldwide. But it will not grow further, simply because the amount of ocean is fixed and the organisms it can generate is static. As a result, all of the world's seventeen oceanic fisheries are at or below sustainable yield. During the 1990s the annual global catch leveled off at about 90 million tons. Pressed by ever growing global demand, it can be expected eventually to drop. Already fisheries of the western North Atlantic, the Black Sea, and portions of the Caribbean have collapsed. Aquaculture, or the farming of fish, crustaceans, and mollusks, takes up part of the slack, but at rising environmental cost. This "fin-and-shell revolution" necessitates the conversion of valuable wetland habitats, which are nurseries for marine life. To feed the captive populations, fodder must be diverted from crop production. Thus aquaculture competes with other human activity for productive land while reducing natural habitat.
Excerpted from THE EMPTY OCEAN by RICHARD ELLIS Copyright © 2003 by Richard Ellis
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|1||Gray Whales in the Atlantic||3|
|Emptying the Ocean||9|
|2||Decline of the Fisheries||11|
|The Lowly Menhaden||25|
|The Great and Wonderful Tuna||28|
|The Mighty Swordfish||39|
|The Patagonian Toothfish||72|
|The Orange Roughy||75|
|The Atlantic Salmon||80|
|3||The Plight of the Sea Turtles||93|
|4||Missing Marine Birds||119|
|The Labrador Duck||119|
|The Great Auk||120|
|Killing the Marine Mammals||123|
|The Last of the Sea Cows||132|
|The Sea Otter||138|
|The Northern Fur Seal||151|
|6||Slaughter of the Southern Seals||161|
|7||Lions and Elephants||179|
|Hooker's Sea Lion||179|
|Australian Sea Lion||181|
|California Sea Lion||182|
|South American (Southern) Sea Lion||183|
|Steller's Sea Lion||185|
|Harps and Hoods||196|
|The Grey Seal||206|
|Caribbean Monk Seal||208|
|9||Little Cetaceans in Peril||212|
|10||The Tuna-Porpoise "Problem"||219|
|11||The Hunting of Whales||236|
|Ecology in Trouble||255|
|12||What is Killing the Coral Reefs?||257|
|Is This the End?||291|
Posted February 26, 2009
No text was provided for this review.
Posted July 15, 2010
No text was provided for this review.